Storytelling & reading: Are we exposing our children to western culture at the expense of our own?

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I have a friend who has three young children and most of the time when we meet; she is either buying them story books or movies. The animated stories she buys are those ones that have snow in them and the characters in the books eat a lot of bagels, if you catch my drift. I once asked her if she was worried that the children would want to eat an actual bagel like the characters they read about but I don’t remember getting an answer. Then one day when I had my righteous African paranoia going on, I asked her why she could not simply get her kids books and cartoons that told stories that the kids could recognize, you know like stories about our legends, diverse histories. I remember her murmuring something about western stories being more interesting or exciting for the kids.

Family reading together. Image from http://www.blackloveandmarriage.com/2012/02/connecting-celebrating-black-history-month-with-your-children/

Not too long after that conversation, I was assigned a task to identify children’s books that tell authentic African stories for consideration for the possibility of being adapted into animated stories. The brief I got was that there is a gap between the animated stories that kids in Kenya and Africa in general are consuming in relation to their environment and reality and there was need for there to be authentic African stories alongside the hugely western stories that our kids can consume as they grow up. This opened by critical eye to the fact that indeed, most of the animated stories in the market tell Western stories. I will come back to this later.

But is it just the movies or the books that launch the process of ‘Westernisation’ of our children? What about the games that we played in the fields while growing up? How many songs can you actually sing in your mother tongue today beyond the chorus? I am not about to start the debate of trying to put one culture above the other. However, between me and you we have to admit that there is a substantial effect that comes upon a child when the cultures that they are exposed to are one-sided and totally ignore the roots of the children.

I am sure that if this was a workshop brainstorming session, we would all be in a position to table at least two effects that a continuous exposure to the Western cultures has had on our generation. Is it possible to correct these with our children? Is it even important that we correct anything at all?

  1. The realities that our children take in could be unpalatable if put against our cultures

I am sure by now you have heard about how, any time there are complaints about how young people have deteriorated morally, the blame largely goes to the mass media. The argument is that the mass media exposes the youth to western cultures that are corrupting them. I don’t know about this. However, something that I am quite sure of is that the process of blindly replacing African values with unfiltered western values that do not auger well with what is acceptable in most of our cultures did not start when we were 18 years old. It has been a slow but sure process – this aspiration towards ‘the cooler west’.  While there is nothing wrong with desiring something that is better, there is something absolutely wrong with desiring what we think is better and ignoring all the standards of what can work and what cannot work in our particular situations. And this is the challenge that children have to deal with – too much exposure to western cultures without having someone to help them dissect the stories that they are exposed to. The result is that we have children who are neither African nor White. It is called an identity crisis.

2. This can make multiculturalism look like a bad idea

Now more than ever, there is need for parents to be actively involved in the lives of their children in regards to the things that they are continually exposed to. Often, these influences come in a box labelled: Entertainment. In an environment where we are always bombarded with new cultures and ideas, the role of the parent immediately goes past that of providing food and shelter to include enabling the kids to remain grounded in their identities while at the same time navigating and picking the good from all the cultures at their disposal.

Reflections on Multiculturalism by Peter Adler  argues that, what is universal about the multicultural person is an abiding commitment to the essential similarities between people everywhere, while paradoxically maintaining a strong commitment to differences. This however can only be achieved if all the cultures that a kid is exposed to are given the necessary attention depending on the child’s identity and then diversify to include the regional, national, continental and even the intercontinental cultures that children are bound to be exposed to as they grow up. The key words are: a firm grounding in their identities and values. This process of firm-grounding has to begin as soon as a child can decode messages from various media.

The Beloved Tinga Tinga tales that explores African animal stories. Image from http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2010/01_january/14/tinga.shtml

3.We end up with children who find nothing good in their cultures

This is normally an unconscious, slow but sure process. Every time they need a movie, they watch something that tells them the importance of Queen Elizabeth or why Cinderella was a very lucky girl. There is nothing wrong with having children who are in touch with the global community but should this be at the expense of their own stories? Isn’t it logical that children first of all understand cattle rustling and how this has affected the relationship between communities and why this ought to be stopped before they understand what it means to play in the snow – snow they may never see in their lives? I am reliably informed that at an uptown club in Kenya, a traditional Zulu song gets cheers from the young people who throng these places but a Kikuyu, Luo or Embu traditional song playing at these same places is either seen as tribal or archaic and might spoil the mood for these young people. See how far we have come? This process started at home when watching local stories/programs, playing games with rhymes in local languages or reading books by local writers was seen as “ushamba” and therefore frowned upon.

I hinted at the beginning that one of the challenges could be the fact that what is widely available to our children today are western stories and perhaps this is why children are more likely to watch Sophia the First than Kirikou. What is the African equivalent of Nickelodeon or Jimjam, for example? Are there any African game developers that are ready to move our children from playing GTA Vice City or Temple Run to something as innovative but African?  Is there enough suitable African content on TV that is available for children; content that was conceived and actually produced sorely for children that can run for 12 hours nonstop for even a month? Could it be that content creators in Africa are neglecting children and that is why we start off with western stories as children and by the time we are teenagers, we are completely hooked?

At a time when globalisation is unstoppable, it is important we ground our children.

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